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U.S. Students Report More Stress Than Asian Peers

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Despite their reputation for strong academic achievement in mathematics and science--and their countries' image as having high-stress education systems--Asian high school students feel less anxiety about school than their American counterparts do, according to a new study.

The study, published this month in the journal Child Development, is the latest in a series of myth-shattering reports on U.S. and Asian students by Harold W. Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

Mr. Stevenson and his co-authors at the university, David S. Crystal, Chuansheng Chen, and Andrew J. Fuligni, said their new study counters the stereotype of Asian students as being "nervous, depressed, and generally overburdened by the pressures of trying to maintain high levels of academic excellence.''

In contrast, they said, students in that part of the world show no more signs of emotional ill-health than their counterparts in the United States do.

"The major message conveyed by the findings is clear,'' the researchers write. "High academic achievement, such as that exhibited by students in Taiwan and Japan, can be attained without necessarily increasing students' reports of psychological distress.''

Mr. Stevenson has been tracking students in the United States, Taiwan, and Japan, since 1980.

As part of this study, he and his colleagues asked 1,386 students in Minneapolis; 1,633 students in Taipei, Taiwan; and 1,247 students in Sendai, Japan, how frequently they experienced five conditions that are considered to be symptoms of psychological maladjustment. The symptoms were feelings of stress, depressed moods, academic anxiety, aggression, and physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches.

Follow-up interviews were also conducted with 200 students in each city to probe more deeply into the sources of their anxieties.

Too Many Demands

More than three-fourths of the American students said they felt stress once a week or almost every day. In comparison, fewer than half of the Japanese and Taiwanese students reported feeling stressed that often.

However, Taiwanese students did report feeling depressed or experiencing headaches or stomachaches slightly more frequently than the American students did.

Although school was cited as the major source of stress in all three countries, high-achieving students in Asian countries said they felt no more stress than their lower-achieving counterparts reported.

This was not the case in the United States, where higher-achieving students reported higher levels of anxiety than less successful students did.

When asked why they experienced "depressed moods,'' students in the three countries gave markedly different responses.

For American students, relationships with peers were reported as the most frequent source of depression, followed by school and family problems. Taiwanese students most commonly cited school as a reason for depression, while among Japanese teenagers, peer relationships just barely exceeded school as the most common reason.

The researchers also found that American students were more likely than Asian students to report that their parents were satisfied with their grades and schoolwork.

The researchers theorized that the higher overall levels of stress experienced by American students stem from the wide range of expectations that are placed on them.

"Adolescents in the United States feel obliged not only to do well in school, but also to have many friends, be good at sports, date, and be employed in some part-time job,'' they write.

"In contrast, doing well in school seems to be the major developmental task of Chinese and Japanese teenagers,'' the authors conclude.

"The question is: What do we want our students to emphasize?'' Mr. Stevenson added in an interview. "Yes, we want students to develop in these broad domains, but now we're also worried about academic achievement.''

"Well, we can't do everything,'' he said.

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